At The Met Fifth Avenue, Thomas Cole’s sublime landscapes are given a global context
Viewers may be surprised to learn that Thomas Cole (1801-48), who famously launched the Hudson River School of landscape painting, was not born in the United States. His roots can be traced back to northwestern England, to Bolton-le-Moors, where he witnessed the gritty realities of the Industrial Revolution before his family crossed the Atlantic in 1818 in search of a better life on these shores. They were economic migrants, in the show’s parlance. Cole’s father had lost his job.
The 200th anniversary of that fateful crossing has prompted The Met to undertake a long-overdue “rethink” of Cole’s oeuvre, the museum’s co-curator Elizabeth Kornhauser said in an interview, and to view this very American artist’s works in a broader, global context.
The result is an inspiring display of some three dozen paintings by Cole, presented alongside major works by his European influencers — contemporaries like J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, past masters like Claude Lorrain. Cole’s legacy, as seen in the Hudson River School paintings of protégés Frederic Edwin Church and Asher Brown Durand, is examined in the final gallery.
More than 30 lenders have contributed to the show, including The National Gallery in London, Tate Britain and the Yale Center for British Art. Tim Barringer at Yale co-curates.
“The whole idea of him being British-born and traveling extensively had been pretty much eliminated from the standard biographies and presentations of Cole,” Kornhauser said. “We felt it was really important that that be redressed.”
Critically, she said, Cole “sees the American wilderness through the lens of a kid who has grown up seeing smokestacks spewing smoke in his own town. He was able to see the promise and the sublime aspects of the American landscape in the way that native-born American artists did not see it.” Think of him as eco-friendly — a proto-environmentalist, intent on sounding the alarm against environmental degradation and development.
After roughly a decade in the U.S., where he achieved quick success as an artist and produced expansive wilderness scenes like “View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains” (1827), “Scene from ‘The Last Mohicans’” (1827) and “The Garden of Eden” (1828) — all on splendid display in the first gallery — Cole felt there were no more worlds to conquer and embarked on a three-year journey back across the Atlantic, first to London (1829-31) and then to Italy (1831-32), to study and meet with the greats.
In England, he met Turner, befriended Constable and worshipped Lorrain’s “Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula” (1641) at The National Gallery. “He perfected his skills at the Academy in Florence and then fully embraced plein air oil painting by studying Turner and Constable and others,” Kornhauser said. “He becomes a much better painter than he was before. Had he not taken this journey and returned and painted masterpieces and then taught the next leaders, there might not have been a strong national school of landscape art in America.”
“The Course of Empire” (1834-36), a five-part series of landscapes detailing the rise and fall of an imaginary ancient civilization, and “The Oxbow” (1836), a wide-angle view from the top of Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts after a thunderstorm, are the show’s star attractions. Everything we’ve seen lead there. They each bear a similar warning, which the curator frames as: “Honor God’s sublime creation, nature. Preserve some aspects of it. Do not alter every square inch of the American landscape out of greed. That was his message.”
In the panoramic “Oxbow,” pure wilderness is juxtaposed with cultivated lands and, ominously, in the distance, a deforested mountain and menacing storm clouds à la Turner (derived from his “Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps,” on view in the galleries).
In an investigative coup (watch the video), The Met’s conservators uncovered under-drawings for the third painting in “The Course of Empire” series — “The Consummation of Empire” — beneath “The Oxbow.” Both were same-sized and painted in tandem at the artist’s studio in the Catskills.
Whereas Cole preached against expansionist policies like Manifest Destiny, many of his followers embraced them. He may have taught them everything they knew about art, but he couldn’t foist his eco-views on them. The disconnect is telegraphed in the last gallery, where Cole’s untrammeled memory piece, “View on the Catskill — Early Autumn” (1836-37), contrasts with the show’s coda, Durand’s “Progress (The Advance of Civilization)” (1853), an homage to forward thinking with a road and distant bridge, train and factory town.
Pro tip: Take the organizers’ advice and continue the journey to the second floor of the American Wing (Galleries 759, 760 and 761), where The Met’s core collection of Hudson River School art is housed and contemporary painter Stephen Hannock’s riff of “The Oxbow,” created in 2000, rules in Gallery 761.
Don’t miss the adjacent book display, with prints by Hannock and song lyrics by Sting from “The Last Ship.” It resonates with the Coleian themes of industrial change and journey — so much so that Sting, in complementary programming, is scheduled to perform at The Met on April 24 (members only), April 25 and April 26.
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